40+ years of real ale in Oxfordshire

Which pubs featured in the first national and local guides?

The sepia-tinted cover photo shows a scene that seems to come not from the last century but the one before – a thatched pub down a wooded country lane, taken while snow lies on the ground. You can almost feel the chill just by looking at it, as you can picture the warmth from an open fire inside, as a pint of real ale is served in tip-top condition by a welcoming landlord or landlady. The travellers’ rest, indeed.

This is the 1977 edition of Real Ale in Oxfordshire, a 48-page booklet put together by CAMRA’s three branches in the county which were, at that time, Oxford, North Oxfordshire and South Oxfordshire. It was in fact the second guide to real ale in the county, the first having appeared in 1975 just a couple of year after the much-loved national publication, the Good Beer Guide, first appeared.

As CAMRA prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, in the desperately difficult conditions of 2021, it’s interesting to look back and marvel at how things have changed for the better, although the future of pubs and breweries might now appear very bleak. At this time of year the thoughts of CAMRA activists usually turn to selecting the pubs to be included in the following year’s GBG, such is the long lead time before publication in the autumn. But how can we possibly do that for GBG 2022, the 49th edition, when pubs have been closed for weeks or months?

But to return to the 1977 guide, it is interesting to see how Oxford branch secretary John Rutherford, of Queen’s College, can report good progress in the spread of real ale in the two years since the Oxfordshire guide was first published. “Five breweries operate in the county, and produce some of the finest beers in Britain,” he comments. “Many other brewers also bring their products to Oxfordshire, and there is an unusually wide variety of draught beers to be had in the county generally and in most of its larger towns. Oxfordshire is, in fact, probably the most favoured county with regard to the range of beers now available (51 brews from 23 breweries).”

The five breweries were Brakspear, in Henley-on-Thames; Hook Norton, in a village near Banbury; Morland, in Abingdon; Morrells, of Oxford; and South Leigh brewery, which operated out of the Masons Arms in this village, near Witney. By comparison there are now more than 20 breweries in the county, many being small, but how many will survive after Covid lockdowns is open to question.

Hook Norton is the only one of the five to survive as an independent brand, although the Morland name is still used by Greene King for beers brewed in East Anglia. Brakspear beers are produced in Witney by Wychwood, while a micro-brewery called Bell Street now operates out of the Bull pub in Henley owned by the Brakspear pub company, which survived closure of the brewery. Other breweries whose real ales could often be found around Oxfordshire in 1977 included Ind Coope with Burton Ale, Courage with Directors Bitter, and Wadworth with 6X and Old Timer.

Independent survivor….. Hook Norton brewery

The 51 brews from 23 breweries that could be sampled in Oxfordshire in 1977 were impressive numbers at that time, showing the success of CAMRA just a few years after its formation to challenge the big breweries’ seemingly unstoppable switch to bland keg beers. By way of comparison however, a survey of 29 pubs in Oxford city centre in October 2019 found 82 beers from 50 breweries, numbers which would have seemed pure fantasy over 40 years ago. That figure might well represent the high water mark of real ale in the city, as it’s difficult to envision such a wide range being available again, but we can always hope.

Delving into the 1977 booklet, over 50 pubs are listed in Oxford alone. It’s important to note that all pubs serving real ale were listed here, and that a similar or greater number would be listed today as there are few pubs not selling real ale, at least before Covid reared its ugly head. Getting into the GBG is a highly competitive process, with space for only 13 of the best pubs in Oxford in the 2021 edition.

Of the seven pubs listed in the GBG in 1974, five are still with us – the Bear, Kings Arms, Turf Tavern, Wheatsheaf and Welsh Pony at Gloucester Green, now known as OXO Bar and one of the few not selling real ale nowadays. By 1977 the list of GBG entries in Oxford had increased to 13, including long-gone names such as the Fairview Inn in Headington (now a private house), the Horse and Jockey on Woodstock Road (now flats), and the Coach and Horses on St Clement’s Street (now a guest house). Other newcomers compared to 1974 included the Black Boy in Headington; the Gardeners Arms in Plantation Road, North Oxford; the Grapes in George Street; the Red, White and Blue (now James Street Tavern) in East Oxford; the Waterman’s in Osney (now the Punter); and the White Hart at Wolvercote. The number of GBG-listed pubs in Oxford has remained similar ever since.

Looking around the county, it’s odd to think that Wantage – now something of a real ale mecca – did not have a single GBG entry in 1974. Banbury had only one – Hook Norton’s Ye Olde Reine Deer – which is still very much with us. Abingdon had two, both on Stert Street and both now closed, the Beehive and the George and Dragon. The latter became a branch of Pizza Express, but the Morland artist tile is still proudly on the wall. Didcot had a GBG entry in 1974 but has none today, this being the Queens Arms, while Wallingford had the Coachmakers Arms. Abingdon, Didcot, Wallingford and Wantage were still in Berkshire when the 1974 guide was published, just before the county boundaries were redrawn that year.

Leafing through the 1977 county guide is equally interesting as it lists most pubs and the beers they were then serving. Morrells had a very strong hold on Oxford as you might expect from the local brewery, but Ind Coope was its major competitor with Burton Ale to be found in nearly 30 pubs. Morland was less well represented in Oxford than might be expected, but was the dominant name in the south of the county, with Oxford pubs including the Cricketers on Iffley Road (now the Mad Hatter cocktail bar) and the Apollo on St Aldates (now student accommodation, but with the artist tile still in place).

In from the start: The King’s Arms [Oxford Mail archive]

Pubs in Oxford where you could find something different included the Bulldog on St Aldates (now St Aldates TavernCourage), the Kings Arms (Bass, Wadworth 6X and Young’s Bitter), the Roebuck (now Wagamama noodle restaurant – Courage), St Michael’s Tavern (Hook Norton, Donnington Bitter and Wadworth), and the Turf Tavern (Hook Norton).

Of Abingdon’s seven entries in 1977, only the Old Anchor and the Spread Eagle on Northcourt Road survive, with the Beehive, Fitzharris Arms, George and Dragon, Queens and Railway Inn all gone. Conversely, Abingdon now has a great reputation for real ale (see post Real Ale Pubs of Abingdon). Witney had six entries in 1977, with the Butchers Arms and House of Windsor gone, but the Eagle Tavern, Griffin, Red Lion (now a smokehouse) and Three Pigeons still extant.

It’s very nostalgic to look through these old publications, especially when this brings to mind pubs, breweries and beers that are long gone. More recently we have lived through a golden age of real ale in both availability and variety, but let’s hope we don’t leaf through contemporary editions of the GBG in years to come and mourn many more that have fallen by the wayside — including, God forbid, the Lamb and Flag. When pubs do re-open, use them or lose them.